Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Sometimes... sometimes I think the Asylum is a head. We're inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it's your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass... and we are you.
The Mad Hatter

A 1989 Batman graphic novel written by Grant Morrison at his crackiest and beautifully (yet creepily) illustrated by Dave McKean.

Amadeus Arkham ended up living the remainder of his life in the asylum he founded, after losing a battle with his own private mental illness which started at childhood and was fueled by the murder of his wife and daughter. Many years later, the inmates have taken over (as opposed to just getting out like usual) and threaten to kill the staff unless Batman comes. As they plan to exact revenge, Batman runs into the depths of the asylum. What follows is a surrealist, heavily atmospheric sequence of symbols based on everything from The Bible and Egyptian mythology to Jungian and Freudian psychology.

More recent editions come with a full script, which is a huge help in understanding what the hell is going on.

Along with The Killing Joke, one of the main inspirations for Heath Ledger's interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight (well, maybe - Ledger himself said he was given it as research but found it utterly bamboozling). The video game Batman: Arkham Asylum also takes many cues from the graphic novel (along with Batman the Animated Series).

The title is taken from Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going".

Tropes used in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth include:
  • Abusive Parents: It is hinted that Amadeus Arkham's parents sexually abused him, specifically in the "Tunnel of Love" imagery from his childhood dreams, and the way his face is situated in said image.
    • Not only Amadeus's parents, it's implied Amadeus Arkham and his wife sexually abused their daughter, Harriet. This is backed up by the drawing she did of her parents, which if you look closely also appears to be external female genitalia.
  • All There in the Script: The only way to really understand the sheer amount of symbolism and imagery stuffed in this story is by buying the 15th Anniversary Edition, which includes the annotated script. It explains the use of some images, some of the stuff that was cut out, and (not to diss Mr McKean or anything) helps to clarify what's happening in some of the more abstractly illustrated scenes.
    • Like, frinstance, one little inscription that's scratched into the doorway of Maxie Zeus' electroshock chamber in Greek, which is significant to the scene, and it translates to "Discover thyself." Again, the artwork is very loosely defined (and in some cases bypasses the original script).
  • April Fools' Day: When the story takes place.
  • Bedlam House: Arkham at its finest, folks. And by finest, we mean "most pants-crappingly scary".
  • Beetle Maniac: Amadeus Arkham inherited his obsession with beetles from his mother, who ate them because of their mythological significance as a symbol of rebirth.
  • Body Horror: "Batman... my skin is sick..."
  • Building of Adventure: Arkham itself.
  • The Comically Serious : The Batman herein is intentionally depicted at his most humorless, as a commentary on his borderline psychotic 1980s incarnations.
  • Covers Always Lie: The Joker is not the main villain.
    • Then again, the cover above is that of the 15th anniversary Updated Rerelease. The original 1989 cover instead has a very detailed drawing of a bat flying by Arkham Asylum.
    • And the Joker is the True Final Boss after the Big Bad is gone.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Clayface is most certainly supposed to represent AIDS.
    • The bearded, white-clad, beatific-expression-wearing Amadeus Arkham's last words following his years-long effort to scratch a binding spell into his cell with his fingernails: "Finished. It's finished."
    • In the part where Amadeus Arkham describes his carnival nightmares, the "Tunnel of Love" is meant to remind you of a woman's genitals.
  • Eye Scream: Joker creatively uses a nurse, a sharpened pencil, and one of her eyes to lure Batman to the asylum. And then when Batman gets there, it turns out he was kidding.
  • Fake Kill Scare: This is how Joker provokes Batman into coming for him: over the phone, he acts as though he's blinding a nurse with a pencil through her eyes.
  • Freud Was Right: If you read Grant's notes, you'll find that a LOT of the scenes in this story have to do with Batman's screwed up sexuality.
  • A God Am I: Maxie Zeus, full stop, to rather disturbing effect.
  • Guilt by Association Gag: Professor Milo
  • Hollywood Psychology: The brilliant idea that The Joker reinvents himself every day because he finds reality so overwhelming, so that he might be a harmless prankster one moment and a homicidal maniac the next, which amongst other things reconciles the wildly different versions of the character that have appeared since the 40's; the problem is the doctors call this "Super Sanity" and imply that perhaps he is perfectly sensible to live this way, maybe more so than the rest, and that this "Super Sanity" is unprecedented. Apart from not knowing what sanity means, the doctors are actually describing a very much precedented condition, namely dissociation or a psychotic break from reality, albeit an extreme case. Maybe Justified/ Subverted since the doctors are obviously quacks, but the term has become popular in the Jokers fandom.
    • It's twenty years later, but in his Batman and Robin series Morrison has Joker admit to the new Robin, Damian Wayne, that he isn't really crazy ("just different sane") and affirms Damian's accusations that he really isn't as crazy as he lets everyone think he is, basically confirming that these doctors are not meant to be taken seriously and The Joker is supposed to be nothing more than a sophisticated Manipulative Bastard and an evil, murdering psychopath. Of course, again, this is twenty years later, so its not exactly the best authority on the subject, even if it is the same author.
  • Ho Yay: This incarnation's Joker loves playing up the Foe Yay.
    • The most memorable part being when he slaps Batman's ass; Batman is VERY uncomfortable with this...
  • I'm a Humanitarian: An early version of the script had Arkham eat his dead wife and daughter following their deaths.
    • Morrison stated in the highly explanatory fully annotated script in the 15th Anniversary Edition that this is still slightly implied as is, and meant to be.
      • If you look carefully in the scenes directly after Arkham discovers his dead family, you can see he has some blood around his mouth and beard.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Killer Croc.
  • Insult Backfire:

Batman: Take your filthy hands off me!
Joker: What's the matter? Have I touched a nerve? How is the Boy Wonder? Started shaving yet?
Batman: Filthy degenerate!
Joker: Flattery will get you nowhere.

  • It Got Worse: For Two-Face, in-story. The doctors took away his coin and replaced it first with a die and later with a deck of tarot cards with the intention of giving him the ability to move beyond absolute choices, but instead it left him unable to make the most basic of decisions... like realizing that he needs to use the bathroom.
  • Lolicon: Morrison ran with the idea of the Mad Hatter having a taste for young blonde girls.
  • Mental Time Travel and Stable Time Loop: According to Morrison's script, the madness of the asylum's inmates echoed back through time which drove Mrs. Arkham (and, later, her son Amadeus) insane. But Batman's anger and confusion is what drove the two Arkhams over the edge, which lead Amadeus to write about the Bat, so Cavandish would set the events of the comic in motion which caused the Arkhams to go insane.
    • All because Dr. Destiny's dream-based reality-warping powers had allowed the Asylum to turn into a nightmare landscape where the veil of time was thin to begin with. And that only happened because the inmates had taken over, and *that* only happened because Batman had in his anger and confusion put them in there to begin with, and *that* only happened because oh look I've gone cross-eyed.
  • Mind Screw
  • Only Sane Man: Professor Milo, literally. Prior to the story, he'd been incarcerated in Arkham after accidentally being exposed to his insanity gas, but by the time of the novel it's worn off. This is generally played for (grim) laughs.

"I don't know how many times I have to say this. I am sane. I am perfectly and completely sane. I shouldn't be in here at all. There's been a terrible mistake."

  • Painting the Medium: Every character gets a different style of speech bubble. For example, Batman's is black with white lettering; Maxie gets blue ... Joker's lines didn't have speech bubbles containing them (but did have a deranged red color) and Clayface's were ... just plain weird.
      • While probably unintentional, Maxie Zeus talking about how he's a god in blue speech bubbles brought someone else to mind.
      • This can lead to difficulty in reading some dialogue, especially with the Joker's jagged-red font.
  • Reality Warper: Doctor Destiny gets portrayed this way here. Despite this, he's actually less scary than in The Sandman. He's also implied to need eye contact for this to work.
    • Actually, all they say is that all he has to do is just so much as look at you and you'll cease being real. It's just a very old English language hyperbolic idiom being employed to express the enormity of his power.
  • Rule of Symbolism: So much.
  • Run the Gauntlet
  • Sanity Has Advantages: But not as many as you'd hope.
  • Slap Yourself Awake: Batman stabs his palm with a shard of glass to wake himself up from the disturbing experience of being psychoanalyzed by The Joker.
  • Small Reference Pools: and yes. We have Sigmund Freud, Alice in Wonderland, Psycho, The Bible... Jungian psychology, Aleister Crowley... Tarot... quantum mechanics?! That's not even half of the references.
  • Take That: In the 15th Anniversary edition, in the beginning of the script, Morrison writes that the script was passed around to many others before the project was completed, and that they all laughed at his attempts to integrate serious psychological symbols into a comic. Look at him now, "@$$holes!".
  • Tarot Motifs: Several, The Tower and The Moon in particular.
  • Too Kinky to Torture: Maxie Zeus has become addicted to electroshock therapy, seen hooked up to what can only be described as a non-lethal electric chair when Batman encounters him.
    • Maybe 'addicted' is not the right word. He describes himself as a martyr, like Attis and Jesus; and of course he is supposed to be the lord of lightning. Maybe he just grins and bears it.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: You'll get much more out of it if you have some knowledge of psychological symbolism. If not...
    • Multiple re-reads are practically mandatory as well.
    • It also has the problem that while the art is wonderful it often does a poor job of actually portraying the scene and at many points has omitted important symbolic details. Reading the script, even without annotations, reveals a lot.
  • Weird Moon: Two-Face has decided it's a coin.
  • What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: While Morrison is known as "that comic writer who does lots of drugs", he was actually straight-edge when writing this.